New Works in the Field

The Tyranny of Generosity and How we Can Tame it

Editors’ Note: Ted Lechterman introduces his new book, The Tyranny of Generosity: Why Philanthropy Corrupts Our Politics and How We Can Fix It (Oxford University Press, 2021).

When philosophers assess philanthropy, they tend to focus narrowly on the decisions of donors and the relationship between donors and recipients. Do individuals have a duty to give? Which causes deserve most support? What does it mean to give well? These are common questions in the scholarship on the ethics of philanthropy. A point of departure for my book, The Tyranny of Generosity, is to treat philanthropy first and foremost as a political phenomenon, examining the institutions that enable and structure the choices that donors can make.

Philanthropy is political in at least three ways. First, the ability to give property away depends on laws and policies that define property rights, contracts, and organizations and shape the distribution of income and wealth. These laws and policies vary considerably from society to society, creating broader and narrower opportunities for donation for different segments of society. Claims about the ethics of giving typically take current laws and policies as given, neglecting to consider whether the status quo can be justified. But laws and policies can be changed, and many leave significant room for improvement.

A second way philanthropy is political is that the menu of causes a donor can support depends on which areas the state has chosen to delegate to private provision. But what is available for donor support is also an historically contingent fact. In classical Athens, for instance, military campaigns were often funded by donation. It’s hard to find any theorist who would defend such a thing today.

A third way philanthropy is political is that governments often directly steer the practice of philanthropy by offering various incentives and penalties for different ways of giving and receiving. The justification for these policies is highly controversial.

Once we understand philanthropy as a political phenomenon, a raft of other philosophical questions emerges. Principally, are there certain things that a society has reason to finance through donation rather than by taxation, or does philanthropy always constitute some kind of remedial response to government failure? How do different views of philanthropy’s justification shape how it should be practiced and regulated? Is private giving something that should be publicly subsidized, and if so, how? How should policies and giving vehicles balance the interests of donors with the interests of recipients and other stakeholders?

An overarching aim of The Tyranny of Generosity is to draw attention to these questions, which are often overlooked in both public debate and philosophical analysis. These questions are important in their own right. But how we answer these questions also makes a tremendous difference to how we approach the ethics of individual giving. When the practice of philanthropy is fully legitimate, one might think that donors can take themselves to have broad discretion over the amounts they give, the causes they select, and the conditions they place on the use of funds. But when the practice of philanthropy falls noticeably short of legitimacy, one might think that the discretion donors can rightly claim is far more limited.

A comprehensive political theory of philanthropy would provide reasonably complete answers to all these questions. I proceed far more selectively, offering interventions on a range of specific debates where I thought I might have something original to contribute. Much of the book is in dialogue with other political theorists and philosophers who have also examined philanthropy through political lenses, including Rob Reich, Chiara Cordelli, and Emma Saunders-Hastings. While I agree with each of them on many points, I also cover several different questions and reach different conclusions on numerous issues.

A main theme of the book is that philanthropy as we know it stands in tension with the value of democracy. Democracy requires that decisions about public matters be made collectively, on equal terms. Philanthropy is a practice that allows decisions about public matters to be made privately, on the basis of wealth. If we endorse democracy, what role, if any, can there be for philanthropy? I argue that philanthropy does indeed have important roles to play in a democratic society. However, reconciling philanthropy with democracy requires more attention to the ways that benevolent intentions can end up purchasing social and political power, whether intentionally or otherwise. It requires efforts to limit the privatization of essentially public decisions and the ability to convert economic inequality into political inequality.

Why might private philanthropy be something to encourage in a democratic society? One argument is that philanthropy helps to resolve the problem of reasonable disagreement about public goods. Public goods are goods that markets fail to provide efficiently for one reason or another—goods such as art, religion, sport, education, social assistance, and so on. Citizens disagree profoundly about the nature of these goods. Democratic governments notoriously struggle to provide public goods in ways that are sufficiently sensitive to this disagreement. One way of overcoming this problem is to share the responsibility for providing public goods between governments and private citizens. Let the state fund the public goods that win the approval of democratic majorities, but let democratic minorities also fund the public goods that they prefer. A further benefit of this scheme of mixed provision is that it is likely to generate an extraordinarily rich array of public goods available for citizens to consume, a rich array because it reflects the ideas of innumerable dispersed individuals.

A second reason to support philanthropy is that donations are a valuable mechanism for funding civil society, a realm of associational activity that mediates between citizens and government. Civil society organizations provide opportunities for practicing skills of citizenship, forming and debating political opinions, and contesting government conduct. These range from neighborhood associations, to professional societies, to advocacy organizations, and public interest groups. In order for civil society organizations to remain independent of government influence, it is arguably a good idea for these organizations not to be financially dependent on the government.

In short, then, philanthropy is valuable as a way of mitigating the limitations of majority rule and as a way of securing the organizational foundations of democratic participation. (In the book, I consider several other justifications.)

If this is true, how might philanthropy serve to undermine democratic values? While I endorse the idea that philanthropy has an important role to play in the provision of public goods, I argue that there are certain goods that societies are obliged to provide more or less exclusively on a collective basis. Citizens have a vital interest in being able to supervise the provision of public goods that are essential to sustaining the status of free and equal citizenship itself. When we invite private donations for things like poverty relief, basic education, and police protection, we are ceding control of our vital interests to forces that are not authorized by us or accountable to us. Democracy, I argue, requires that citizens remain sovereign over decisions about matters of basic justice like these.

Here’s a second way that philanthropy might conflict with the value of democracy. Recall my suggestion that it’s valuable to be able to finance civil society organizations through individual donations. Now, imagine we’re in a society with wide inequalities in wealth and no limits on the amounts of money that individuals can donate. Perhaps the government even encourages people to donate through various tax advantages. One predictable result of this scenario is that wealthy people will be able to exert disproportionate influence over the composition and direction of civil society. Causes and organizations that serve as sites for deliberation and advocacy are going to be heavily skewed towards the preferences of wealthier citizens. This situation conflicts with the central democratic principle that members of a society ought to enjoy equal opportunities for political influence. Being economically fortunate should not necessarily make someone more politically fortunate.

To summarize, philanthropy can threaten democracy in two related but distinct ways, first by privatizing decisions about matters that are essentially public, and second by allowing the conversion of inequalities in wealth into inequalities in political power.

What are the solutions to these problems? I don’t offer any silver bullets. My main goal is to try to make further progress on the diagnosis of these problems and a clearer understanding of the tradeoffs faced by different stakeholders. Do I think societies should outlaw private giving for the relief of poverty, illness, and educational disadvantage? Not at all. That kind of cure could be worse than the disease. Rather, I see my arguments as underscoring the central importance of ensuring robust public funding and oversight of essential public goods. Supplying these goods well is not just a matter of efficiency or fairness. It’s also a matter of ensuring public authorization and accountability. We might welcome private assistance in emergency scenarios, but the goal of private assistance should always be temporary and transitional, with an eye toward facilitating the capacity for effective democratic administration. It should not be taken as an excuse for donors to entrench their role indefinitely or to push their own policy preferences on unwilling communities.

When it comes to the other problem I mentioned, the problem that donations end up amplifying the influence of the wealthy over civil society, one thing I do in the book is explore some different ways of using tax policy to moderate this. Most governments provide citizens a tax deduction or matching grant for the donations they make, but the value of this subsidy depends on how much a citizen is able to donate. Because wealthier people are naturally able to donate more, tax subsidies end up augmenting inequalities in public influence. I propose an alternative scheme that seeks to maintain public support for philanthropic giving while moderating inequalities in opportunities to donate. The scheme would give every citizen a voucher to be redeemed for cash by the organization of their choice. Citizens who want to donate more than this can also purchase additional vouchers at increasing cost.

A skeptic might respond that if we want to reduce the ability to convert wealth into power, we should just tackle inequalities in wealth directly. I agree that societies could significantly reduce this problem by getting serious about tackling wealth inequality. But most views of distributive justice hold that at least certain inequalities in wealth are neutral or beneficial. My argument shows why we still have reason to care about unequal opportunities for donation even once we have resolved other problems with economic inequality.

There’s much more in the book than I can preview here, including arguments about intergenerational philanthropy, corporate philanthropy, and effective altruism. The chapter on corporate philanthropy is worth noting in particular because it helps to open up new areas of inquiry for political theorists and philosophers. Among other things, the chapter draws attention to the increasingly blurring lines between commercial and nonprofit activity. More and more, private organizations are experimenting with alternative methods for seeking social impact that do not rely on donation, methods such as impact investing, social enterprise, and various forms of political activism. My hope is that some of the ideas in the book can help to anchor further reflection on the broader phenomenon of using private capital to advance conceptions of the public good.

-Ted Lechterman

Ted Lechterman is a research fellow in Philosophy at the University of Oxford, where he holds appointments at the Institute for Ethics in AI and Wolfson College. His first book, The Tyranny of Generosity: Why Philanthropy Corrupts Our Politics and How We Can Fix It, was published by Oxford University Press in 2021. Lechterman was trained at Harvard and Princeton and has held postdoctoral fellowships at Stanford, Goethe-Universität, and the Hertie School.

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